Trump Lawyers Were Surrounding Cassidy Hutchinson Like The Devil Witches In Rosemary's Baby
On Monday, at the final public hearing of the House January 6 Select Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren hinted that some attorney in Trumpland might be in deep shit for urging his client to tell fibs to the committee. Speculation immediately turned to Stefan Passantino, the former Trump White House Ethics (if any!) lawyer whom blockbuster witness Cassidy Hutchinson fired before making her damning public testimony. CNN confirmed Wednesday that Passantino was the attorney in question, by which time his bio had disappeared from the website of his law firm Michael Best. Reached for comment, Passantino told the network that he had resigned “given the distraction of this matter.”
And indeed, the transcript released yesterday of Hutchinson's testimony about her dealings with Passantino will probably prove to be quite a distraction for the lawyer, both personally and professionally. Particularly since Hutchinson said that she's had discussions about this very topic with the nice people at the DOJ.
The passage where Hutchinson described Passantino saying New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman is "friendly to us" made immediate headlines. But most of the 138 pages released yesterday is Hutchinson's narration of how she wound up in the clutches of a bunch of older Trump attorneys who exploited her inexperience, loyalty, and most of all her financial straits to keep her quiet about what she'd seen.
And it's filthy.
The story starts off in November of 2021, when it became clear to Hutchinson that she was going to be subpoenaed to testify to the committee. Despite Hutchinson being in her early 20s, Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had relied on her completely, and she'd been in the room when a lot of shit went down. In 2022, she had no money and no job, but she also knew exactly what kind of people she was dealing with, which is why she was desperate to find an attorney who was not from Trumpland.
"In a lot of scenarios that I have been privy to, once you are looped in, especially financially with them, there sort of is no turning back," she told the committee.
But by February, after she'd been subpoenaed and with the deadline looming to produce documents and show up to testify, she was desperate. So she had mixed feelings when Eric Herschmann, the former White House attorney who testified memorably about the advice he gave to John Eastman, told her something like "Hey, I'm so sorry that we haven't taken care of you yet. We didn't know you didn't have an attorney yet. Why didn't you reach out sooner? Well, don't worry about that now. ... I'll call you in a couple of days to connect you with somebody."
That somebody turned out to be Stefan Passantino, who'd represented both the Trump campaign and members of the Trump family. And after meeting Passantino, Hutchinson didn't feel any less conflicted.
"I'm fucked ... I am completely indebted to these people," she told her mother. "And they will ruin my life, Mom, if I do anything that they don't want me to do."
Weirdly enough, her aunt and uncle, whom she describes as being heavy into QAnon, seemed to understand her predicament and even offered to mortgage their house to help her get independent counsel. But in the end she stayed with the "free" lawyer Trumpworld assigned her.
The deal was hinky from the jump, with Passantino refusing to sign an engagement letter or tell her who was paying his bill, both of which violate legal ethics in most jurisdictions.
"If you want to know at the end, we’ll let you know, but we’re not telling people where funding is coming from right now. Don’t worry, we’re taking care of you," he assured her.
Passantino also presented it as in her interests that he share the details of her testimony with his "partners," by which he meant Herschmann as well as Trump's lawyers Alex Cannon and Justin Clark. Later that circle expanded to include Meadows's lawyer George Terwiliger.
When it came to the committee, Passantino seems to have done everything he could to limit Hutchinson's testimony and make it seem like she knew less than she did. He ordered her not to print out her calendar to refresh her memory, and only let her see the documents she was supposed to testify about five minutes before her appearance. And unlike the other attorneys she interviewed who said they'd need a six-figure retainer to cover the months of deposition preparation, he seems to have been perfectly happy to send her in there and let her play the amnesia patient:
And he said, “If you don’t 100 percent recall something, even if you don’t recall a date or somebody who may or may not have been in the room, that’s an entirely fine answer, and we want you to use that response as much as you deem necessary.” I said, “But, if I do recall something but not every little detail, Stefan, can I still say I don’t recall?”
And he had said, “Yes." And I said, “But if I do remember things but not every little detail, and I say I don’t recall, wouldn’t I be perjuring myself?”
And he had — Stefan had said something to the effect of, “The committee doesn’t know what you can and can’t recall, so we want to be able to use that as much as we can unless you really, really remember something very clearly. And that’s when you give a short, sweet response. The less you remember the better. I don’t think you should be filling in any calendars or anything.
He also seems to have counseled her that she didn't have to disclose conversations she'd overheard.
He was like, “Well, if you had just overheard conversations that happened, you don’t need to testify to that.”
“So, if I overheard it from a Member, do I have to?”
And he said, “It’s circumstantial. We can talk about it.”
So I said, “Okay.”
Spoiler Alert: NOT OKAY.
Nor is it okay to advise your client that she doesn't have to testify as to what she knows because she should never have been in the room in the first place, and "That's Mark's problem. Just because you knew what Mark was doing, doesn't mean you have to answer these questions."
And it is very much not okay for a lawyer to watch his client give false testimony and do nothing about it.
Hutchinson told Passantino about her conversation with Secret Service agent Tony Ornato, but when she was first questioned about it by the committee, she denied knowing about the incident in the limo when the driver refused to take him to the Capitol on January 6.
Here's how she describes her conversation with Passantino after that testimony:
I looked at Stefan, and I said, “Stefan, I am fucked.”
And he was like, “Don’t freak out. You’re fine.”
I said. “No, Stefan, I’m fucked. I just lied.”
And he said, “You didn’t lie."
I said, “No, Stefan. Do you know how many times they just asked me that question? I just lied.”
And he said, “They don’t know what you know, Cassidy. They don’t know that you can recall some of these things. So you saying ‘I don’t recall’ is an entirely acceptable response to this.”
He’s like, “They’re prodding. They want there to be something. They don’t know that there is something. We’re not going to give them anything because this is not important. You’re doing great. You’re doing fine. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing.”
And in case it wasn't clear why he was perfectly okay with her lying, Passantino spelled it out.
"It’s not fair that Mark put you in this position," she quotes him saying. "We just want to focus on protecting the President. We all know you’re loyal. Let’s just get you in and out, and this day will be easy, I promise."
Hutchinson claims that Herschmann also reached out to her in the period she was being represented by Passantino to say something along the lines of "You were so effective in your role, a lot of times we forgot how young you actually are. It's not fair that you were exposed to so much at such a young age. Nobody ever thought it was going to get to this point. We just want to focus on taking care of you now."
Which sounds very nice, except that Passantino was also representing Herschmann in some capacity and seemed very hot to keep Herschmann out of the soup.
And in that same conversation, he said, “So if you have any conversations with any of them, especially Eric Herschmann, we want to really work to protect Eric Herschmann." And I remember saying sarcastically to him, “Eric can handle himself. Eric has his own resources. Why do I have to protect Eric?” He said, “No, no, no. Like, just to keep everything straight, like, we want to protect Eric with all of this."
Maybe if you squint at it just right, you can make out a scenario in which these much older, much more powerful people really were trying to take care of this kid. And she absolutely was a kid — FFS, she wasn't even old enough to rent a car when most of this shit went down. Maybe they really did regret putting her in that position, and weren't taking advantage of her inability to afford a lawyer to keep her quiet about what she knew. Maybe Passantino, Herschman, Clark, Cannon, Pam Bondi, and Susie Wiles weren't manipulating her with job offers and promises of financial stability, all of which disappeared when she testified truthfully as to what she knew.
But it seems pretty bloody unlikely.
In the event, they picked the wrong girl. Because there was a reason she was in the room when all that stuff went down, and it was because she was incredibly competent and politically astute. So Hutchinson reached out to Alyssa Farah, a former Trump White House communications official, who helped her establish a back channel to the committee and eventually find new counsel.
But before she broke with Passantino, Hutchinson went through another round of interviews with the committee, during which the lawyer told her explicitly that if she cooperated, even to the point of showing up without being subpoenaed, Trumpland would stop paying her legal bills. He also suggested that she risk going to jail for contempt of Congress, insisting it would be "better" for her if she didn't testify any further.
At which point, Hutchinson spent an entire weekend in New Jersey reading All the President's Men over and over, highlighter in hand (because she really is Tracy Flick), and then reached out to a member of Congress she trusted:
But there is a Republican Member of Congress who, for years I've been close with and confided in, Republican Member of Congress who is not on the committee.
And I remember calling this Member as I'm reading through this. And this Member had told me — this Member had reminded me that, when I spoke with this Member back in January when I reached out to them about potentially getting money from Trump world to pay for my legal bills, like if that was a bad or a good idea, this Member had told me that, "If you do that, just know that you're kind of making your bed and you're getting back in Trump world, Cassidy. That lawyer isn't just going to be working for you. Like, I just — I want you to be aware of that. I'm not telling you to do it or not to do it, but I just — I want you to know that you can't take money like that and expect them to just be working for you and your interests."
So that night I had called this Member, and they essentially said, "Yeah, Cassidy, you need to — you're the one that has to live with the mirror test for the rest of your life. I know that you feel like that you didn't handle things right. I know that you're stressed about this. Are you going to be able to live with yourself if you just move on and kind of forget about this, or do you want to try to do something about it?"
And the rest is history, but one that should not gloss over how extremely filthy and exploitative this was. Let's cross our fingers that karma's feeling especially bitchy in 2023.
[Hutchinson September 14 Transcript]
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Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.